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  • Imperial Syntax:Nakagami Kenji's "Monogatari" and Modern Japanese Literature as Ethnography
  • Anne McKnight (bio)


The life and work of fiction-writer Nakagami Kenji are often bracketed in terms of firsts and lasts: a hyperbole that has served his career for both ill and good. Born in 1946, Nakagami was the first writer born after the Pacific War to enter the literary star system by winning the prestigious Akutagawa prize for his first novel, Misaki (The cape, 1976).1 His apprenticeship as a writer departs from the path illustrated by his college-educated predecessors, such as Nobel prize-winner Ôe Kenzaburô. Nakagami neither majored in French, nor even went to college, much less to Tokyo University. Like Ôe, Nakagami came from a small town known for its straight-talking dialect speech. But he worked as a manual laborer, a luggage handler at Haneda airport, during the years he wrote and workshopped small press fiction at the magazine Bungei shutô (Literary capital). Although his works include long and short fiction, film scripts, manga scripts, essays and fieldwork-based reportage, Nakagami is known largely for his Kishû saga (1976-1983), a set of interlocking novels and stories set in a family construction business in a folklorically [End Page 142] loaded part of the country during the era of high-speed economic growth.

Much of Nakagami's work has been read in terms of the dominant mode of prose fiction in twentieth-century Japan, "I-fiction" (shi-shôsetsu). As a genre, the shi-shôsetsu is evaluated in a way that Ted Fowler reminds us "is inherently referential in nature: its meaning derives from an extraliterary source, namely, the author's life."2 But the link between life and work in the case of Nakagami has been channeled even more persistently than most, and has been particularly dependent on the image of the iconoclast to connect the two realms. Nakagami has become known as a writer who breaks away from prior forms of apprenticeship, but who also breaks texts, and who, in general, just breaks. In this essay, I argue that the associations of violence and iconoclasm that critics fortify by framing Nakagami's life and work in terms of "I-fiction" close the circuit of critical discussion off from other ways that his work becomes meaningful beyond that circuit. Specifically, the mutually reinforcing referents of life and work prevent us from seeing the dynamics of his interlinked works as they work toward making, not only breaking, an oeuvre of prose fiction.

This essay argues that far from breaking, the treatment of received tradition and cultural objects (e.g. photographs, earlier literary texts, logbooks, jazz riffs) that do feature so vividly in Nakagami's work is always narrated through a character's displaced identification with a racialized position of experience. This is a strategy that allows Nakagami's works to avoid intervening directly in controversies surrounding the representation of hisabetsu buraku fiction—works about people and neighborhoods with historical ties to outcast groups—that roiled in the 1970s. At the same time, his works still foregrounded narrative operations of racialization and discrimination. He pursued literally the writing of ethnicity and race, ethnography, in a manner distinct from the realist mandate of activists. Buraku residents, or buraku-min more generally, including people not resident in state-designated buraku areas, make up roughly two to five percent of Japan's population, its largest minority, and have been defined as a modern underclass—with higher unemployment, lower literacy, poorer housing, and shorter lives than mainstream residents of Japan.3 Nakagami became increasingly interested in linking prose fiction and ethnography—how ethnicity and race are written—in the mid-70s, as a key 1976 legal verdict was issued in the rape-murder trial of a buraku youth, the Sayama trial. The trial had been ongoing since 1964, but the new higher court verdict affirmed that the widely criticized tactics used to extract the youth's confession were permissible. The verdict provoked [End Page 143] a series of debates about buraku representation in fiction and journalism, and the ongoing trial was one of the three most pressing issues for postwar buraku activists. The verdict affirmed the...


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